Monkey See, Monkey Do

It always surprises me that people look to monkeys for hope.

I suppose it is because they looks so much like us, because they are, in fact, like us, that they serve something of the same function in the debate of essential morality that children do: they seem like us in a pristine state.  We look to them to see what we might have been like, before adulthood or primate evolution fucked us up.

So people look to monkeys and apes to get a glimpse into our own essential nature: if they are amoral animals merely, then perhaps we are no better than they, only cleverer.

But if they are good, if they have kind natures, if they treat each other according to some kind of primitive moral code, then that would be good news indeed for us: it would suggest that ethics is in our nature.

That is the thesis of the book ‘Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals’, by Frans de Waal.  De Waal is a zoologist and primate ethologist, and a very persuasive writer about primates (he is the author of the great, great ‘Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes’), and in ‘Good Natured’, he says, “I have set myself the task of seeing if some of the building blocks of morality are recognizable in other animals” (p.3).

He does this, he says, because, “Given the universality of moral systems, the tendency to develop and enforce them must be an integral part of human nature…instead of human nature’s being either fundamentally brutish or fundamentally noble, it is both” (p.2-5).

Double Holding
Double-Holding (in rhesus macaque)

Which is to say, of course, that it is neither.  Frans de Waal did not convince me that apes are fundamentally, rudimentarily moral, but he did convince me that we are fundamentally social.  And that is morally worrisome.

For example, did you know that rhesus macaques hold their infants tightly in their arms with other infants, to encourage the two infants to bond?  It’s called ‘double-holding’.  But, and here’s the really interesting bit, according to de Waal, “double-holding is highly selective: nine out of ten mothers hold their infant with the offspring of females who outrank them…perhaps mothers are suggesting upper-class rather than lower-class friends to their offspring” (p.101).

Punishment
Punishing an low-ranking playmate (in rhesus macaque)

 

Conversely, when their offspring play with a lower-ranking youngster, the mother may separate and punish the lower-ranked young monkey.

Or, “macaques are specialists in indirect revenge [emphasis in the original]…victims of attack often vent their feelings on a relative of the opponent.  Their targets are typically younger than the initial aggressor, hence easier to intimidate, and the vindictive action may occur after considerable delay” (p.159).

De Waal sees in these behaviors evidence of the kind of sophisticated social behavior which might underlie rudimentary ethics and I think that makes him hopeful.  I see in these behaviors evidence that primates (including humans) are fundamentally social, and that does not make me hopeful.

Social behaviors, social instincts, of the kind de Waal describes aren’t moral – they are tribal.  These behaviors suggest that primates have deep-wired capacities to tell in-group versus out-group, to assign other primates spots in a social hierarchy, and to place individuals within functional units for purposes of social advancement or retaliation.

Conflict
Three lower-ranking females gang up on a higher-ranking female (in rhesus macaques)

De Waal may see the germ of morality here, but I see the germ of most human evil.  Our remarkable and innate ability to sort each other, our intense desire to affiliate and to exclude, our propensity to generalize the virtues and sins of individuals onto their kin, or to groups that share their characteristics: these are the behaviors which underlie genocides and race wars, religious crusades and colonializations.  And I see the beginnings of them in those macaques.

It is very hard to shake an instinct: you may learn all the moral rules you like, but in the dark moments, when you are angry or afraid, you tend to default to your instincts.

And our instincts, revealed in those monkeys, are to arrange ourselves into heritable hierarchies, which are also called ‘classes’.  Our instincts are to claw towards the status of those above us and not to pity those below us.  Our instincts are to remember the insults we’re dealt and not the ones we’ve given, to retaliate, to revenge ourselves on the kin of our aggressors.

And so monkeys don’t make me hopeful at all.

All images are taken from ‘Good Natured‘, and were taken by Frans de Waal at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, where he is the Charles Howard Candler professor of Primate Behavior.

Note for the sake of pedantry only:  Monkeys and apes are not synonymous terms: they are different sub-orders of primates. Rhesus macaques, pictured above in the body of the post, are monkeys.  The header image is of a bonobo, which, like humans, are apes.

Make America Cynical Again

     Recently, during a discussion of current events, my own beloved father looked at me gloomily and said, “You’ve become cynical.  That makes me very sad.”

     “Why?” I asked.

     “Because if you’re cynical, it means you aren’t hopeful about people,” he said.

     I was surprised, and for two reasons.  The first was his use of the word ‘become’.  Whether I am, as he says, cynical, or whether I am, as I would argue, realistic, I have certainly always seen the world through this lens.  It is familiar by now.  I have always been this way – I have never been optimistic.

Trump Rally
Quick, what color are all these people?

     (Although, in my father’s defense, it is true that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America jarred me and, perhaps, sharpened the edge on my cynicism.  I had not believed my countrymen would be willing to elect a man that xenophobic – I was wrong.  I don’t intend to overestimate them again.)

     But I was also surprised by his juxtaposition of cynicism and hopefulness.  He seemed to feel that these were necessarily opposite conditions – I don’t believe that they are.

     ‘Cynical’ can mean several things.  My father, in this context, probably meant ‘distrustful of human sincerity or integrity’.  I suppose I am that.  It’s not that I don’t believe that humans lack either sincerity or integrity, or even that those qualities are rare.  However, I believe that those qualities co-exist, in all humans, with cowardice, malevolence, and a facility for dishonesty, and that, therefore, those virtues are unreliable in any individual or population over time.

Nuremberg Rally
The Annual rally at Nuremberg in 1936

     As I have said before (several times), I believe that all peoples, in all places, at all times, are capable of evil.  That this capacity for evil, like our capacity for good, defines us as a species.  That we will never outgrow it, evolve past it, or become too smart for it, and that we must be ever vigilant against it.  I believe that the data, both historical and contemporary, support my conclusion.  I believe that this conclusion, to put it plainly, is true.

     And the truth is never cynical.  No belief, no matter how rosy it may seem, if it is not premised on the truth, can be really hopeful.

hiroshima5-crop

     The belief that we are better than our ancestors or the people of other nations, this is a self-flattering lie, a delusion which is easier to bear than hard truth.  And lies are never really hopeful; they are, in fact, a surrender to a much darker cynicism than I am capable of: that it is better to believe yourself good than to acknowledge your own capacity for evil and so avoid doing it.  That it is better to seem than to be.

     I believe that it is far more hopeful to be a cynic who looks out for ordinary evils than an optimist who insists that evil is always freakish, because only the cynic will see the evil coming far enough away to stop it.  Only someone who believes in evil will trouble themselves to learn about it, and learning is the best way we can avoid it in ourselves.

     Any view of the human race which denies an essential and ineradicable part cannot be hopeful.  Hope is not hope which is premised on ignorance.  There can be no true hope without honesty first.

     So, no, Dad, I may be cynical, but I’m not hopeless.  On the contrary, Dad: I find that you have much less hope than I.  People who, confronted again and again with the wickedness of their fellow men, with their small-minded hatreds, their tribalisms and rages, people who nevertheless insist on finding them essentially good, they are hopeless.  People who are then always surprised when evil happens, they are hopeless.  People for whom the good opinion of each other means more than actually saving each other, they are hopeless.  If you must lie to yourself about man’s nature in order to accept him, that is hopeless.

Memorial Rwanda
Memorial shrine in Ntarama for victims of the Rwandan genocide

     I believe I have seen man in all his despicability, and I still see a way forward for him.  He’s not a saintly ape, he is not basically good, but, with attention, he might learn.  And, as long as that is true, he will never be completely hopeless.  

     I’m trying to learn, and so I’m not hopeless.

Featured Image: This is a real product, sold on Amazon, ‘Election 2016 Donald Trump Make America Great Again Booty Shorts

Quislings to All Humanity

Review of ‘The Three-Body Problem‘, by Liu Cixin

Warning: this post contains details of premise which are not revealed until midway through the first novel.

     I suppose there comes a time for every dedicated science fiction reader when they must ask themselves, ‘would I collude with an alien species to destroy the human race?’

The Three-Body Problem Cover     I have just finished the first two books of Liu Cixin’s ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ trilogy, best known to English readers by the title of its first book, ‘The Three-Body Problem’.  ‘The Three-Body Problem’ was nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel and won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel (the first non-English language novel ever to win, I believe, and the award was shared with his translator Ken Liu), and has met enormous acclaim since its publication in English.

     The premise of the trilogy is thought-provoking: during the Cultural Revolution in China, a persecuted physicist discovers, via the Chinese equivalent of the SETI program, evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization.  These aliens live on a planet which is located within the gravitational field of three suns, and since three objects do not form a repeating orbit (the ‘three body problem’ of the title), they are subject to lethal climatic extremes.  The aliens are thus in need of a new planet and the human scientist, who had become convinced that humankind is unable to govern themselves justly, reveals the location and suitability of Earth to them.  The first two novels of the trilogy tell the story of this scientist and the organization she builds to destroy humankind, and, once she is discovered, of humanity’s preparations of for the coming of the alien fleet.

     The best purpose of science fiction is to pose moral problems in a context which, through novelty, clarifies them, and, by that metric, ‘The Three-Body Problem’ is a success.  The problem it poses is a particularly acute one for me.  The scientist at the heart of the premise believes that humans are innately and ineradicably evil – I believe that humans are innately and ineradicably evil.  She believes that, if left to govern themselves, they will always and inevitably turn to murder and wickedness – I believe that as well.  And so when she sees a technologically superior race, she decides to hand over mastery of our lives and world to that race – would I do the same?

     No, of course not.  There are several glaring errors of thought required to reach her conclusion, several unjustified leaps of logic.

aliens-peace

     First, technological superiority does not imply moral superiority.  Simply because aliens are more advanced scientifically does not mean that they are more “advanced” ethically.  You encounter this thinking often in science fiction; the notion is that civilizations which divert resources into constant, intra-species strife lack the resources for the development of interstellar travel.  The conclusion is that, therefore, any extraterrestrials likely to reach us are probably going to be some hippy-dippy, beatific, highly pacifistic race which has “evolved” past war.  

     This is completely bogus.  If human history is any example, war is a great engine of technological progress, not an impediment to it.

     More than that, the fact of the approaching alien fleet almost certainly tells the morality of the approaching alien fleet: any race willing to conquer an alien planet and either enslave or exterminate another intelligent species is not pacifistic.  They are not morally superior to us; they are not better or kinder.  They are, to put it simply, as evil as we are.

     The last problem is this: that you are capable of evil does not mean that you necessarily deserve death.  It does not mean that you are capable only of evil and not capable of good, that evil and evil alone defines you, or that individuals among your population are incapable of living entirely good lives.  A species like ours which carries its capacity for evil within it, innate and unchanging, may also carry a like capacity for good, just as innate and just as ineradicable.  And each generation of that species should be given the chance to choose their own goodness over their own evil.

     So, after much thought, I have decided that, when the time comes, I will not help extraterrestrials exterminate humankind.  It was a tough call, but I’m going to throw my lot in with us.  I still think we’re our own best bet.

The three novels of the ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past‘ trilogy are: ‘The Three-Body Problem‘, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End.

Featured Image:

From the 1996 movie ‘Independence Day

Dear Mitch McConnell

     Dear Mitch McConnell,

     Have you ever read ‘A Man for All Seasons’, the play by Robert Bolt?

Sir Thomas More
Portrait of Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527.  Part of the Frick Collection.

It’s about Sir Thomas More, the 16th century English statesman and philosopher, specifically about his struggles with his own conscience in his capacity as advisor to and Lord High Chancellor for Henry VIII.

     I ask because there is a moment in that play which I wish you had read, because I believe it might have been a warning to you this week.

     It is a discussion between More and his son-in-law, Roper, about whether to arrest a man named Richard Rich.  Roper would like him arrested, and More replies that Rich has committed no crime, saying that he (More) would let the Devil himself go free if he had not committed a crime.

     Roper: So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law!

     More: Yes, what would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to go after the Devil?

     Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

     More: Oh?  And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, all the laws being flat?  This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?  Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

     This week, Mr. McConnell, you destroyed the Senate’s filibuster rule for Supreme Court appointments.  As I understand it, you are now preparing to do the same for all legislation.

     I know that the filibuster, like any tool, can be used for ill: it can be used for blind obstructionism and grandstanding (well you know this, Mr. McConnell, for you have used it this way).  The filibuster, when abused, allows for the tyranny of the minority, and tyranny of any kind is harmful.

     But not all tyrannies are equally harmful, and the tyranny of the minority is less fearsome than the tyranny of the majority; the filibuster protects against the tyranny of the majority. It encourages compromise and discourages polarization. It blunts extremism and forces cooperation.  In these ways, it is good for the country.

“Breaking the rules to change the rules is un-American. I just hope the majority leader thinks about his legacy, the future of his party, and, most importantly, the future of our country before he acts.”

– Minority-leader Mitch McConnell in 2013, about Harry Reid eliminating the filibuster.

     Perhaps you don’t believe that, Mr. McConnell; perhaps you believe that the more power accrued to your side, the better.  That would not be such an evil thought, Mr. McConnell: if you believe truly that you are right, then why shouldn’t you wish that your side be able to pass laws unobstructed by a troublesome minority?  If that is the case, then, please, Mr. McConnell, listen to Sir Thomas More.

     Because you’ll be in the minority again, Mr. McConnell.  One day, whether in two, four, eight, or sixteen years, the great wheel will turn again, and your party, your principles, your values, will hold fewer seats.  You will be no more or less right than you are today, but you will be less powerful.

     And where will you hide then, Mr. McConnell, the filibuster having been cut down?  As you slowly destroy the rules and customs which protect the minority, do you ever trouble yourself to remember that people treat others as they themselves have been treated?

     You are teaching a whole generation how to treat a political minority, Mr. McConnell. You are teaching them to cut down every rule, disregard every protection, disdain every view but their own, in order to achieve what they want.

     Today, you have the majority and you have used it to deprive the minority of their voice.  But in life only one thing is certain: this too shall pass.   That majority was given to you by the people and people are fickle.  It will be you in the minority one day, Mr. McConnell, and do you really think that you will be able to stand up in the wind that blows then, when the people blow against you?

     I don’t think you will.

“For He Makes His Sun Rise on the Evil and on the Good, and Sends Rain on the Just and on the Unjust”

     I’ve become a little obsessed with something Vladimir Putin once said.

     Putin has, of course, been much in the news lately here in the United States as various interested parties try to figure out exactly how involved he has been with our President.  And so I finally got around to reading a book I’ve been wanting to read since it came out: Masha Gessen’s ‘The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin‘.

My edition has two afterwords.  The second, a postscript written in 2014, concerns the autocrat’s violent anti-gay ideology.  Gessen is herself gay, and it was the persecution of homosexuals which finally drove her from her country, and so in a book with many emotionally difficult portions, it is one of the most upsetting.

     And, in it, Gessen quotes, among other things, Putin’s State of the Federation address to Parliament in 2013, in which he said,

     “Today many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures.  Society is now required not only to recognize everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning.” (p. 312)

putin 2013 address.jpg
Putin entering the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow to give that State of the Federation address in 2013, from the Financial Times

     It is always fascinating to watch someone invoke the fight against evil in order to achieve evil.  It begs the question: do they know that they are about to commit an evil act?  If not (surely not), then why don’t they know?  If someone else committed that act, would they know it was evil?  Are they hypocrites interested only in the accumulation of their own power, or are they true believers?

     Vladimir Putin and I agree that evil exists, but we have very different notions of what it is, what it looks like, and who is doing it.  In fact, we probably believe that the other is a pretty near approximation of an evil actor.

     Putin believes (I am persuaded by Gessen on this) that evil is personified by liberal, democratizing, Westernizing forces which corrode the conservative, traditional power structures of his country.

     I believe that the evil person is one who seeks to accrete power, wealth, or to experience joy or relief, at the expense of the natural rights of other people: at the expense of their safety, health, freedom, or life.  I believe evil is that which requires that the rights of the other be sacrificed to achieve the goals of the self.

     So how can Vladimir Putin and I use the same word and mean such different things?  If ‘evil’ means ‘someone I disagree with very, very much’, or ‘someone who does something I find personally repugnant’, does it really have meaning worth preserving?  Is ‘evil’ just another level on our personal scale of badness, or is it another thing altogether, a distinct category of human behavior?  If it is the latter, shouldn’t we make sure that our use of that word is spare?  Shouldn’t we make sure not to dull its edge by overuse?

     Obviously, I cannot stop Putin from saying or doing whatever he pleases (apparently, no one can).  But I can object strongly to his use of that word, ‘evil’, which is incorrect and dangerous.

Pew Homosexuality 2014
Results of a 2013 Pew study asking the question “Should society accept homosexuality?’, broken down by nation, from pewglobal.org

     Whether you believe that homosexuality is right or wrong (and I would like to be clear and emphatic here: I believe that homosexuality is exactly as right, as normal, as healthy, and as natural as heterosexuality), surely we can agree that one person’s homosexuality does not deprive any heterosexual person of their natural rights, and, therefore, is not evil and should not be so called.  Tolerance of homosexuality, then, is not a commitment to neutrality in the battle between good and evil – that is a preposterous idea.

     We may disagree about what is right and what is wrong, but we should not disagree about evil.  There are many things which are considered ‘wrong’ by some portion of the population but which we all ought to have the right and freedom to do: take the Lord’s name in vain, get a divorce, tell a lie, have a child out of wedlock, smoke marijuana, marry someone of the same gender, cheat on our spouse, work on the Sabbath.  You may think one or more of these things is wrong, but, if I do them, I do not violate your natural rights, and so my right to do them should be respected.  We can agree to disagree.

I don’t believe that we can afford to agree to disagree about evil – there are lives at stake.  And so I don’t believe that we should be using the word ‘evil’ when we mean ‘wrong’; I don’t believe we should use the word ‘evil’ except when we mean it.  Because we’re going to want to have that word at our disposal, potent and not diluted, when we need it (to, say, describe a man who is having opposition journalists killed).

     And we are going to need it.

 

Featured image from abc.com, anti-Putin protests in the UK sparked by the Russian crackdown on gay rights in 2014.

Peaceful, Evil Man

To Tony Judt, With Humility and Apologies

     There are minds so strong and lovely that one quails at the idea of disagreeing with them.  The error must be yours, you think, because their thinking is so sure and clean and reliable.

     When I find a discrepancy between my thinking and that of a greater mind, I usually retire, but every once and awhile, an admired intellect will assert something that I feel strongly is incorrect, and I find myself unable to give way.

     That happened to me this week.  I have been reading, with enormous pleasure, ‘When the Facts Change‘ by Tony Judt, the lucid, moderate, incisive historian of post-World War Europe. Judt is the sort of author is who is so reasonable and articulate that he is dangerously persuasive, and I find myself, usually, in total agreement with him.

     So I was caught up short when I read something in this book with which I disagree pretty categorically:

“It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity.  War – total war – has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era.  The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902.  Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either Communism or Fascism would have seized hold of modern states.  Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust.  Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot.” (p. 274)

     These data are cherry-picked.  

     First of all, it is certainly coherent to lay the victory (though not the rise) of Communism in Russia at the feet of World War I, but to suggest that, for example, the millions of deaths in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) were a result most proximately of World War I is ridiculous – the People’s Republic wasn’t even established until 1949!

1966 Struggle Session
A ‘struggle session’ in Harbin in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, featuring public humiliation.  From scmp.com

     Or: perhaps the first British concentration camps in Africa were built because of the Boer War, but what about the detention camps they used for massive deportations of Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950’s?  Describing the “Mau Mau Uprising” as ‘total war’ seems like an enormous stretch, even when one considers how reluctant the British have been to be honest about it.

Mau Mau
British soldiers looking for Mau Mau fighters in Kenya in 1954.  From guardian.com

     Or: what about the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the truly blood-curdling actions taken by the occupying forces there?  

Rape of Nanking
A Japanese soldier poses with decapitated heads in Nanking in 1937.  From ‘The Rape of Nanking’ by Iris Chang

     Or: if we must restrict ourselves to the treatment of African-Americans in modernity, what about the Jim Crow era in the United States, which was nothing if not atrocious?

Lynching
From atlantablackstar.com

     There are more.  The truth is, there is no limiting circumstance on human evil.  To suggest that there is, is to indulge in optimism completely without cause.

     Judt’s assertion offends me because it implies that, in the absence of war, people can be trusted not to lash out at each other genocidally, and this is clearly not the case.  The arc of human history does not bear this out; the history of the twentieth century does not bear this out; neither the history of my nation or his bears this out.

     Humans require no special context to commit evil.  They do not require war to commit genocide.  They do not need to be in extremis to commit atrocities.  They do it in all places at all times whether or not they have war as an excuse.

     This capacity to annihilate one another is not a limited or circumscribed capacity – it is a human capacity.  If we keep looking for reasons why we could never have done the same terrible things as other people, if we keep looking for special circumstances which explain why cruelty and murder and evil are not universal, then we aren’t going to see the next evil coming.

     We have to take responsibility, not for the evil we have or have not done, but the evil we are capable of doing.  To say that only people in certain circumstances might commit atrocities is logic preliminary to explaining why we cannot commit them.

     But every nation, people, or creed will have the opportunity to strike cruelly at another people, and, if they are convinced beforehand that they are not capable of it, then they will think less critically about what they do.  It is only by acknowledging that we may all do terrible things unless we are careful that we will see the need to take care.

     And we must take care.

 

Featured Image from law.georgetown.edu/library

To Cease to be Divided

     Do you ever wonder whether everything you believe is wrong?

     I mean, not ‘everything’, obviously – I’m sure we all believe many, many true things. But do you ever wonder whether your deeply held beliefs, the pillars of your world-view, the informational basis around which you organize yourself as a moral or ethical member of society, as a citizen, might be wrong?

     I worry about this all the time.  I’m someone who, a generation ago, would have identified as a moderate conservative with liberal social values, which position today makes me pretty solidly liberal.  I live in the Northeast, surrounded by other liberals, and the constant lament these days, the endless question, is:

     How can conservatives believe the things that they believe?  Don’t they see that their views are incoherent?  That their new President lies?  How can they so casually disregard science, fact, data, consistency?

     I am sure that conservatives wonder the same things about liberals; I read conservative news, so I know for a fact that they do.  When two opposing sides disagree about the nature of reality, when each is sure that they are correct, when they will state opposite “facts” with equal confidence and each side rejects the “facts” of the other, my question is this:

     How can you be sure you’re on the right side?  How do you know that it’s the other side that is deafened by their echo chamber, and not yours?

     As far as I can tell, I am the only person in the country right now worrying about this. Everyone else seems very sure that they are on the right side, and they become more sure every day.  Thus, the two sides grow further apart.

     I’m not sure I’m right.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.  I’m sure I hold some number of beliefs which are completely ass-backwards – I just don’t know which ones.

     How can you tell if your mind is open?  How would you measure such a thing?  I read people who disagree with me, and sometimes they persuade me: does this happen enough?  Too much?  If it doesn’t happen often, is that because I’m closed-minded, or because I’m already mostly right?

     Whenever I find myself very sure that my side is right, I think back (bear with me) to O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.  I was just a kid when O.J. went to trial, but I remember quite clearly that all the adults in my affluent and mostly-white world were sure that O.J. was guilty.

     More than that, these adults were dismayed by what they saw as the shameless race-baiting of O.J.’s lawyers, which they considered manipulative and transparently false.  O.J. was one of the most famous men in the country: of course the police weren’t being racist with him.  Of course they hadn’t planted that glove, that accusation was elaborate, absurd.  The police might have been racist in Montgomery in the 1950’s, but this was the 1990’s, L.A.: they didn’t frame black men anymore.

     And I remember that they all seemed disturbed that black Americans had fallen for the cynical ploy of lawyers.  It seemed credulous and paranoid to the adults around me, for whom the police were an accommodating if obstructionist presence.  It seemed as if race mattered more to them (black people) than truth, as if they were willing to overlook facts in order to stay loyal to their side.

bialik-oj-11
From fivethirtyeight.com: At the time of the trial, nearly the same percentage of black Americans thought O.J. was innocent as white Americans thought he was guilty.

     None of these white adults would have identified themselves as racist; they would have been hurt and offended by the accusation.  But it never seemed to occur to them that, perhaps, every black person in America wasn’t paranoid, that when they said that it was plausible to them that the L.A.P.D. would try to frame the most famous black man in America, it was because they were having very different experiences with police than white people.  That the world, that even their own country, was much bigger than their experience.

     But no one around me seemed to figure that out then – it wasn’t until decades later, when dash cam footage showed police shooting and killing many unarmed black men, that we understood how the police looked to other Americans.

     I think about this whenever I hear liberals lament the blindness of conservatives, because I hear them say the same things about those conservatives that we said about black Americans: that they care more about their team than about ‘reality’.  The implication is that we are superior or smarter, that we see more clearly, that ‘we’ know what reality is.  I’m not sure that’s true.  That wasn’t the case back then – maybe it’s not the case now.  Because, sometimes, the problem isn’t whether you see clearly or not; it’s that you only believe what you see yourself, but the world is much, much bigger than what any one side can see.

     So I wonder: what am I missing now?  What don’t I know?  What can’t I see?  What are my prejudices?  How can I tell the difference between when you are wrong and when I am wrong?  I am sure we are both wrong much of the time, but how can I tell which is which?  I’m frantic to know this, to see into the darkness of my own ignorance and error.  I just need a light I can trust.

Featured Image:

Reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict, taken from atlantablackstar.com